There are currently plenty of job opportunities in infrastructure, however a lack of experienced, qualified engineers is becoming a cause for concern Jon Masters reports.
There is arguably no industry currently offering greater career opportunities than UK infrastructure. Pick any one of the main sectors of roads, rail, energy and water and flood management - each has taken on a very healthy appearance for job hunters as the year has gone on.
Add it all together, though, and it starts to look like a skills crisis.
Lack of qualified engineers is causing little panic at present. Civil engineering firms are well versed in managing their resources to suit fluctuations in demand. However, recruitment specialists and heads of sector-focused business divisions are pointing to increasing difficulties finding enough sufficiently skilled people for the workloads ahead.
Competition is increasing for an apparently limited number of available recruits. Commonly, companies are relying on offering the best overall package of competitive salary combined with career development, rewarding work and an attractive environment to work in.
“It’s very hard to find the right people at the moment. There is a lot of emphasis on securing recruitment of graduates, training our own people and reskilling people from other sectors. We’re looking to attract people by getting the messaging right,” says Arup global water skills leader Justin Abbott.
“The immediate goal is to bring people in for the next generation; mid range qualified engineers and graduates and technicians”
Stephen Russell, Mouchel
Firms working in the UK water sector are ramping up their recruitment in readiness for the AMP6 five year investment period starting in April next year. Water is one sector that is trying to smooth out the stop-start nature of its capital projects, but it’s still subject to cyclical investment periods.
Five years ago the sector suffered uncertainty caused by a global financial crisis coinciding with the start of AMP5. This time around, the water companies’ delivery alliances have got to look sharp to avoid missing out in a recruitment race within the water sector and across all infrastructure sectors.
“While we are building general capacity, we’re also building niche teams of process engineers and MEICA [mechanical, electrical, instrumentation, control and automation] specialists,” Abbott says.
“These skills are increasingly of interest to the energy sector as well, which presents a challenge. The water sector may have to pay more to retain some of its specialist skills. We all need to get better at describing some of the interesting jobs we work on, and communicate this a lot earlier to graduates.”
Energy, or power generation, is booming worldwide, says Mott MacDonald power unit recruitment manager Rob Power. Hydro and wind power, nuclear and thermal, are all “going through the roof and in lots of new places globally”, Power says.
“Wind and solar energy are growing in countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Hydropower in Pakistan is a big area of work for us, as are power projects in general in Africa, South America and Asia Pacific,” he adds.
Exact numbers needed are unclear, Power says, partly because any given power project can involve people from all over Mott MacDonald’s business.
“We can call on technical expertise in geotechnical, structural and environmental teams. People from across the piece will tend to be involved in the case of just one offshore wind project. This has been a really big year for recruitment in energy, though, running into hundreds,” Power says.
Recruitment into the energy sector has suffered from a lack of certainty, says Arup director for energy Alan Thomson. “There has been a great deal of uncertainty over whether certain projects will get built and generally speaking, reform creates uncertainty. Potential newcomers want the certainty of a long term career. The industry reforms are settling down now, but there is a lag before projects get going. The affect on skills in the industry is perhaps something that has been overlooked.”
Periods of slow activity create another problem, described by Thomson as a lack of “SQEP” - suitable qualified and experienced personnel. “Graduates and new qualified people are usually in good supply. But have we got enough experienced people? This is the bigger challenge,” he says.
The same message comes out in virtually all infrastructure sectors. In the roads market firms have been stepping up recruitment efforts in anticipation of a ramp up in workload first announced in 2013 and confirmed in George Osborne’s 2014 Autumn Statement.
Mouchel, for example, has taken on at least another 600 people, which was its headline target just for 2013/14. The company is continuing in a similar vein, aiming to recruit around 500 for its infrastructure services business in the UK, Middle East and Australia over the coming year.
“There is a lot of competition in the recruitment market, but we’re responding by building skills in places like India and the Middle East”
Simon Harrison,Mott MacDonald
“We’re looking towards a goal of strategic growth over the next three to five years. We have a good current order book, meaning a strong short term focus for recruitment, and the outlook now looks very good for the longer term,” says Mouchel business unit director for highway design and management Stephen Russell.
“The immediate goal is to bring people in for the next generation; mid range qualified engineers and graduates and technicians to support a tranche of experienced people, although we also have some vacancies at the top end as well.”
Mouchel has long term contracts with clients in Manchester, the North East and east of England, and is looking to exploit further opportunities in the Midlands and the North. The firm has a long term plan for a new office in Leeds.
“We see this as a strong growth area,” Russell says. “There is a lot of opportunity around Leeds and the adjoining urban authorities.
Development driver in the North
“The focus on greater connectivity in the north is becoming a real driver of development, and work with local authorities and the Highways Agency from Liverpool across to Hull. Plus we need to support the rail market.
This is another opportunity and growth area due to HS2 and possibly HS3.”
Rail is the sector with alarm bells ringing loudest over skills supply. HS2 comes on top of Network Rail’s £38bn programme of work for the next five years of the CP5 control period. Network Rail has a recruitment target running into four figures. Plus there are the needs of all of its suppliers.
It is the specialist rail skills that are in shortest supply. In 2013 the National Skills Academy for Rail Engineering predicted the rail engineering sector - roughly 100,000 strong across all disciplines - would need 10,000 more during the 2014-19 period of CP5. Engineers and technicians account for about a fifth of the demand, split equally across track, signalling and electrification.
Network Rail’s CP5 programme includes projects adding electric power to the Great Western Mainline from Paddington to Cardiff, plus the Midland Mainline, the South Wales Valleys lines and the Northern Hub centred on Manchester and stretching as far as Liverpool and Leeds.
Finding enough experienced electrification engineers is understood to be proving difficult. One consultant told NCE that it is looking to Sweden for overhead line power systems designers and project managers.
Several consultants have told NCE that they will look to draw resources from overseas to cope with demand. “Generally, UK civil engineering lost a lot of good people to the Middle East, Australia and elsewhere during the downturn, but the market here is now very attractive and it’s likely people will come back,” Russell says.
Mott MacDonald group strategic development manager Simon Harrison says: “Globally, recruitment needs present a mixed picture. Peaks and troughs in the UK can be balanced out by places elsewhere being in an opposite phase of boom or bust.
“There is now a lot of competition in the recruitment market, but we’re responding to that by building skills in places like India and the Middle East. Going in the UK’s favour is its lead on growth compared to the rest of Europe, so we can recruit from the EU. It’s never easy and the best people are hard to find, but with some ingenuity and global reach we can manage it.”